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Posted: 3:02 p.m. Friday, May 30, 2014

If students arrive far behind in high school, few catch up 

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Are schools off track?
Are schools off track?

By Maureen Downey

I recently talked to a Harvard researcher who noted American students fare well on international comparisons until 4th grade where their performance begins to stumble. It goes into freefall in middle school.  (More about that interview later.)

Longtime readers know I'm not a fan of  the middle school model, which has a dismal record of success in catching up sixth graders who arrive far behind. These kids enter middle school with bleak academic fates. Rather than change the fate of struggling students, middle school seals it.  

It’s clear from the research that altering a child’s academic trajectory becomes more difficult over time. Students who arrive woefully behind in high school are unlikely to leave four year later on grade level, if they even stick around to graduation.

A new study from ACT addresses the challenges in catching up students, noting: "Waiting until high school to address preparation gaps is too late for the majority of students who have fallen behind, particularly those who are far off track. Catching up those students is a daunting challenge even for the most effective high schools."

The report concludes:

Even the more successful higher poverty high schools typically raised fewer than 20 percent of those students to College Readiness Benchmarks by 12th grade. Results starting in fourth grade were similar, with a hint that catching students up in mathematics may be easier in the middle grades than in high school.  These results are consistent with the general view that catching students up from far behind is difficult and time-consuming. That underscores the importance of an early start and an emphasis on prevention over remediation.

Specifically, educators and policymakers should consider the following as they take a long-term approach to preparing students: Efforts to close academic preparation gaps should begin as early as possible, be more intensive, and take as long as necessary. Even if starting earlier does not reduce the amount of time it takes to catch students up, starting earlier gives students more time to do so. Thus, early monitoring of student progress is essential to ensure that needed interventions begin soon enough.

Here is the official ACT release on the new report:

Very few students from at-risk demographic groups — including ethnic minorities, English language learners, those from low-income families and those with disabilities — who start off “far off track“ academically are able to get back on track by four years later, according to a policy report released today by ACT.

The report, Catching Up to College and Career Readiness: The Challenge is Greater for At-Risk Students,” defines “far off track” students as those who scored more than a full standard deviation below the “on track” target for their grade level.

The report shows the difficulty of closing student performance gaps even when they are identified as early as 4th or 8th grade.

It is the third in a series of ACT reports on the importance of early learning across the educational continuum. The first report, “Catching Up to College and Career Readiness,” demonstrated the difficulty of getting far-off-track 4th and 8th grade students caught up by middle and high school, respectively.

The second report, “Catching Up to College and Career Readiness: The Importance of Early Learning,” identified the key components of a strong preschool and elementary school education program that can keep students on track for later success. The new report, the last in the series, shifts the focus to students from at-risk demographic groups.

Following are some notable findings from the new report:

·Only 2 percent of low-income, far-off-track 8th graders were able to meet the 12th-grade ACT College Readiness Benchmark for science by high school graduation, compared to 6 percent of their non–low-income counterparts.

·It may be slightly easier to catch up low-income, far-off-track students in earlier grades. By the time they reached 8th grade, 9 percent of low-income 4th graders in the far-off-track group were able to meet the 8th-grade science benchmark.

·The same pattern is evident in mathematics: only 1 percent of low-income, far-off-track 8th graders were able to meet the 12th-grade benchmark for mathematics by high school graduation, while 5 percent of low-income, far-off-track 4th graders were able to meet the 8th-grade benchmark for mathematics by the time they reached 8th grade.

“The findings for at-risk students are particularly concerning,” said Scott Montgomery, ACT vice president of policy, advocacy and government relations. “Preparation gaps that are already evident in elementary school appear to become harder to close as students progress through school. The findings are an urgent reminder of the need to monitor student performance and intervene as early as possible.”

Maureen Downey

About Maureen Downey

Maureen Downey is a longtime reporter for the AJC where she has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy for 12 years.

Connect with Maureen Downey on:FacebookTwitter

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